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Heated debate over GE-Free future

Heated debate over GE-Free future as Minister defends government policy.

Criticism of consultation-costs raises fear of secret experiments to sideline public scrutiny.

Monday 12th November

There was heated debate at a public meeting at Sunnybrae School, Auckland North Shore, when Environment Minister Marion Hobbs, spoke publicly about the Government's response on genetic modification.

Addressing an audience of about 60 people the Minister invited those attending to highlight specific themes they wanted discussed, which included socialised risk and liability, controls on field trials, the international marketing image for New Zealand, and the use of cows as bioreactors for making pharmaceuticals.

Government policy open to "GE-Free NZ" option
The Minister spoke for about 20 minutes and raised a number of points that were challenged during the sometimes-heated discussion. She defended the approval of contained field-trials as a way to move forward that did not rule out the option of keeping the food supply and general environment "GE-Free". She pointed to trials conducted since the 1980's that had been safely completed without contamination. Ms Hobbs said
the Prime Minister had publicly acknowledged the option to keep food-production GE-Free -though it had gone unreported by the media. She said this was still on the agenda being explored by the Labour Party and that extensive GE cropping in New Zealand was unlikely in the foreseeable future. The idea of GE-Free zones in parts of the country was also of interest.

"Costly" Public Consultation
In response to comments about the funding of monitoring field trials and researching issues like Horizontal Gene Transfer, the Minister said ERMA (The Environmental Risk Management Authority) had not signalled a need for increased funding for monitoring trials, but had raised the issue of the costs involved in public consultation. After an angry response Ms Hobbs conceded that the public's involvement was funded by taxes paid by the New Zealand public and was not in fact "free" as she had argued.

" It was outrageous to have the Minister come to a public meeting to talk about open and transparent processes and then complain about the costs of involving the public in decision-making", said Jon Carapiet from the Auckland GE-Free coalition. "Such reported criticism from ERMA raises the spectre of a push towards secret trials that could exclude the public from submissions, under the guise of cost-cutting measures."

'Possibly-Contaminated' US Corn seed imported to save a thousand jobs
In response to questions on the biosecurity threat from GM organisms Ms Hobbs said that the difficulty in testing for GE contamination in corn seed had already required the importation of seed from the US that had shown some positive testing for GE. She defended the decision to approve the importation claiming that otherwise a thousand people would have been made unemployed. Ms Hobbs was questioned on why the importers had not been required to find other sources of uncontaminated seed such as Europe where the Minister said testing for GE contamination was becoming possible at levels of 0.05 %.

'No more choice' as GE contaminates organic food
Other concerns were raised about the spread of GE into the food chain leading to all organic produce becoming contaminated and the denial of any choice. One person said the US organic industry already faced this scenario and co-existence of GE and organic crops would force people to accept contamination of up to 1%, and more.

Scientist raises issue of public and science-community concerns
The cause of public concern was also queried by a scientist, from Auckland University, who talked about benefits from changes to cancer-causing fungi that infect fruit. She said that she, and many other scientists regularly use GE techniques but acknowledged concerns amongst the Scientific Community itself, over the use of constructs such as anti-biotic resistance marker genes. The meeting discussed that Medical uses were different to uses in food and that few people opposed research for seriously ill people such as those with Multiple Sclerosis. But trials with human genes in cows raised ethical questions for the new Bio-ethics Council to help consider, especially because of doubts about the truth of the claimed medical intentions for the research.

Minister to publish response on web-site
A more complete review of the Government's response to the Royal Commission recommendations will be available on the Ministry of Environment web site in the coming days.


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